Sonja Salmon just wanted luggage that looked good and allowed you to easily find your belongings. It turns out, it wasn’t that easy to find. As a corporate executive who had worked her way up in Canada’s finance industry, Salmon was constantly on the road. She needed to look polished at meetings, but this was hard to pull off when she had to squeeze everything into a miniscule carry-on.
In 2014, she decided to create her own luggage company, Ebby Rane. The suitcase she designed was reminiscent of elegant steam trunks of the past, but it had all the functionality of a modern wheeled hard-shell case. And importantly, each bag came with its own set of coordinating packing cubes and cases, so that travelers could pack more into the bag and find what they needed quickly. They also made the inside of the suitcase look tidy and organized.
It would have been a gamble for anybody to leave a stable career in finance to launch a travel startup. But for Salmon, that risk was bigger, because there are so few black entrepreneurs in the world of luxury fashion. She expected that it would be harder to break in, get VC funding, and even manufacture products because she would stick out in the industry. “The barriers to entry in this business are high, and this alone makes it challenging to enter and compete,” she says. “The luggage and travel accessory industry is a fast-growing sector, and black business owners are notably absent.”
But these concerns didn’t stop her. In fact, a career of being underestimated in the workplace had taught her to have a thick skin and push forward with confidence. Here she shares her journey of launching Ebby Rane, and advice for other black entrepreneurs who have hesitations about launching a business.
Fast Company: Tell me about your brand.
Sonja Salmon: Ebby Rane is a luxury travel brand with a collection of carry-ons and travel bags. When we set out to create the first collection, we believed it was time for a radically fresh approach to the luggage category, an industry that had remained largely unchanged for decades. With over 80% of business travelers using carry-ons exclusively, we did away with the idea of an empty piece of luggage, and created a set of packing products designed to change the way we pack and travel.
FC: What made you decide to launch it?
SS: They say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” As a corporate executive in financial services, I was traveling across continents, and always found it challenging to transport all that I needed to present myself confidently with clients and colleagues.
I wanted all the elements of my closet at my fingertips during business trips. I remember zipping a pair of heels into a plastic sandwich bag for an upcoming trip, and that’s when the idea stuck. I began to sketch out what my dream luggage would be. It would have high-quality bags and carryalls for shoes, cosmetics, vanity items, a tech case for my chargers, a waterproof bag for last-minute wet items, a laundry bag. The list was long, but it reflected everything I needed.
The interesting and challenging part was working to design a system that allowed for packing over a week’s worth of clothes along with all these accessory cases, while ensuring the actual case would have sturdy handles to hoist into overhead bins. And of course, durable wheels that would withstand a lifetime of long walks through airport terminals.
Fast forward to a year later, when I presented The Quartermaster prototype and the vision behind Ebby Rane to a focus group of women in New York City. I left that session with multiple preorders that day, and Ebby Rane was born.
FC: Are black entrepreneurs underrepresented in your industry? And if so, why do you think this is?
SS: The luggage and travel accessory industry is a fast growing sector, and black business owners are notably absent.
It is difficult to enter this industry and build the necessary relationships with suppliers, raise capital, and build profitable distribution channels. The barriers to entry in this business are high, and this alone makes it challenging to enter and compete.
I would like to see more black entrepreneurs in fashion, generally. I hope that young black women are inspired by my story and pursue their dreams of a leading career in the fashion and accessory industry.
FC: Have you faced any obstacles as a person of color trying to launch a business? What are they? How did you overcome them?
SS: As a woman of color, I have been underestimated many times in my life. I have always operated at my personal best and assumed in professional situations there will be mutual respect until proven otherwise.
My perspective as a woman of color and founder of a travel brand is that we need to engage in a broader conversation about access to capital for women-owned and minority-owned businesses. I know these challenges personally, even as the founder of a company with a track record within a high growth industry.
FC: What is your advice to other black people who are passionate about fashion/apparel and want to make an impact in this industry?
SS: When I meet with young entrepreneurs, I enjoy sharing the experiences that have served me well in my journey. I believe in building strategic partnerships and tapping into your professional network to maximize opportunities that are win-win for all.
It’s also key to branch out and expand into new networks, especially with other entrepreneurs who can share nontraditional and creative ways to launch, build, and grow the business–it’s key to be open, adaptable, and agile in business and in life.
I also believe in knowing your own strengths and staying in those sweet spots–engaging with others who share their expertise in areas that your business requires. At a certain stage of my business, it was time for me to bring on a partner with luxury experience from one of the top global hospitality brands to help us take Ebby Rane to the next level.
Above all, I would offer the simple advice of having confidence: If you believe in your brand or product or service, stand behind it tall and make it happen.
This interview has been edited for clarity.